By Susan Esther Barnes
When Rabbi Noa Kushner leads services, she bows differently than most people do. She holds her prayer book in her left hand, and she holds her right hand slightly away from her body, palm up. Her husband says she does this as a way to say, “Look, God, I’m open for whatever you send my way.”
Part of me likes that idea. I want God to send stuff my way. I want to be open for whatever God sends my way. But they say, “Be careful what you wish for.” They say, “God works in mysterious ways.” Saying to God, “Sure, bring it on!” without knowing what “it” is feels pretty scary to me.
So usually when I bow I “forget” to hold my right hand out like that. Or I kind of sort of do, but I don’t really mean it. Or, you know, my prayer book is kind of heavy; don’t I need to hold it in both hands?
Last Friday night Dan Nichols was at our synagogue as Artist in Residence. I was sitting in my seat, following along with the service, when Dan suggested we close our eyes. He told us to go deep into ourselves. He asked us to think about our first Jewish memory. What did it look like? What did it feel like?
I couldn’t pick just one. I thought about presents that said “Happy Chanukah” on them. I thought about visiting Grandma in San Francisco, with her Hebrew calendar in the kitchen, and a box of matzo always on hand, and the chanukiah in the living room year ‘round.
As I was sitting there, remembering myself as a small, vulnerable child in my Grandmother’s apartment, Dan started to sing a song about Torah, and about struggle. “Did you mean this struggle for me?” the song asked.
I thought about how just staying in the world of Reform Jews would be so easy for me. Why do I go to blogs written by Orthodox people and struggle with the thoughts and statements I find there? Why do I go where my beliefs are questioned? Do I really need to seek the struggle?
For me at least, the answer is yes. We are the people Israel – which is translated as “struggles with God.” It is through the struggle, through the questioning of my beliefs and the way I live my life, through the search for knowledge and understanding, that my beliefs are transformed from just ideas into something deeply and firmly held. A belief that does not hold up to close scrutiny is not worth believing in. The fire and the water tempers the steel.
Then, while I was in the midst of being this small, vulnerable child in my Grandmother’s living room, and thinking about the struggle, and feeling more alone and exposed than I have ever felt in a room so full of people, Dan began to chant the Sh’ma. And we all joined in with him. It was the deepest, most vulnerable, most connected Sh’ma I have ever chanted.
“Hear, oh Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is one.” Or, perhaps, “Listen up, all you people who struggle with God. God is here with us in our struggle and vulnerability; in fact, God is at one with us in the middle of all of it.”
Later in that service, and through services on the next day, when I bowed I held out my right hand, palm up. Because I knew what it felt like to be vulnerable with God and to open myself up to what God is sending my way. And I know that whatever it is, it’s going to be okay.